Words: Max Freeman-Mills

We love a footballing story that’s off the beaten track—or even just off the mainland.

So it’s safe to say that A Foot Of Turf, a brilliant, soulful short film about an Irish island football tournament, was right up our alley. We talked to David Drake, the film’s director, about the unique story he unearthed with his team, and footballing traditions being kept alive in the farthest reaches of Ireland. 

(You can scroll down to watch the film.)

MUNDIAL: How did the story first come about?

DAVID: It’s actually quite a serendipitous story. We knew we wanted to shoot a story in Ireland, but we misspelt "Aran Island" in Google, and the Arranmore football tournament came up. We read all about it, and it looked like the exact thing we wanted to shoot.

The June bank holiday in Ireland (known as Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh in Irish) is the annual date of the unique football competition—held on a remote island off the west coast of County Donegal in Ulster, home to a population of native Irish speakers whose population hovers barely above five hundred.

In A Foot of Turf, we are introduced to this unique and storied society whose way of life is increasingly being imperilled as a result of a 2006 ban on salmon fishing by the European Union. The ban puts an end to a resource that, for generations, has been the lifeblood of the community and it is doubtful the distinct culture of the island will survive for long without it.

The ‘Arranmore Challenge’ invites teams from all over Ireland, and even further afield, to participate in an elimination tournament of 20-minute matches over three days. This is the busiest weekend of the year for the island, residents and mainlanders flocking to watch the matches, and then drink and party into the early hours.

The island's population—many of who have been forced to move away in search of work—is dwindling and ageing. And yet, there are efforts to keep the flame alive: "Islanders from as far afield as Leicester return to Arranmore in support of their football team, which isn't just another club—it's an expression of their pride and identity." Each weekend the players set to work, tackling and scoring between the great blue mass of the Atlantic and the wall of wild mountains that rise from the island's interior.

Do you see the story of the island's footballing community as an optimistic one or a pessimistic one? Like, is this a story about football's power to persist, or is it about the decline of a footballing tradition?

It is a bit of both, if I'm honest. I think the idea that this very ancient way of island life fading away is really sad, but the enthusiasm and passion they have for their home and their team in the face of adversity is incredibly uplifting and inspiring.

This feels like a more contemplative film than a lot of football videos are nowadays, was that a conscious decision, to remove any bombast? Like with the very subdued score backing it.

Absolutely. A lot of films these days feature epic music and slow-motion shots—which, in my opinion, often subverts an honest telling of a story. We didn't want to follow those tropes, so we very consciously shot it, edited it, and composed for it in a very low-key way.

How easy was it to get the voices in the film talking, did you find it a forthcoming community?

The community was incredible. The people are so open and accommodating and hospitable. When we arrived on the island, a perfect stranger pulled up and offered us a lift to the location without knowing a thing about us. People were constantly coming up to us and chatting, offering their help, and their stories. Beyond the filmmaking experience, it was actually just a great experience on a personal level. A really wonderful place.

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